The New Nostalgia… Many Happy Returns

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Among the other memory feasts that have been offered to the public in facsimile recently is a Montgomery Ward catalogue that is even older than the Sears Consumers Guide ; it dates from the year 1895. Jumping quickly ahead, there is also the 1922 Montgomery Ward version. (By then, apparently, do-it-yourself mining, at least at Montgomery Ward, was out, for the prospector’s tent isn’t even listed.) Another particularly charming entry is The American Girls Handy Book , reissued by its original publisher in 1969. This practical guide to “How to amuse yourself and others” was originally written in 1887 by Adelia B. and Lina Beard. The Beard sisters designed their book as a companion piece to The American Boys Handy Book , written five years earlier by their brother Daniel C. Beard, who later founded the Boy Scouts of America. This one was also reissued in 1969. The reader detects a certain feminist streak in the Beard girls; they state in their preface that the book is for “the American boy’s neglected sisters.” Nor did they go along with the concept that nice little girls of the 1880’s should confine themselves to painting china or embroidering (although these subjects are covered, too). For instance, they urge girls to take up tennis, and they start the section with exact specifications for making one’s own tennis net.

The most recent facsimile reprint is the 1929 Johnson Smith catalogue, published in April of this year. For $10.OO we can recall the jokes and tricks that wowed us when we were children. Items like “the whoopee cushion” or “the joy buzzer” (“under the sheet it feels like a mouse”) entranced a whole generation of little boys, and in the heyday of the company thousands of them mailed off their dimes and nickels to get such thigh-slappers as the melting spoon or the black-eye joke (“It isn’t a bad joke if your friend isn’t hot tempered”). The Johnson Smith Company also sold—and still sells on a much smaller scale—office equipment, musical instruments, books, and jewelry; but what most of us remember, the items with the “resonance,” are the practical jokes—objects that parents of the day tended to regard as junk. Although it is still too early to know how this one will sell, a sampling of the Johnson Smith catalogue was printed as a dollar pamphlet in December of 1969, and thirty thousand copies were appreciatively snapped up by the end of the month, presumably to stuff adult Christmas stockings.

As well as digging out items to print in facsimile, publishers have been thinking up tempting anthologies for the nostalgia market. In late 1969, for instance, Christmas shoppers could choose between The Saturday Evening Post Treasury , in which the list of contributors reads like a course in American fiction (plus thirty-two pages of “classic cover paintings”), or the more frankly camp volume, Parlour Poetry , designed to reintroduce the “recital poetry” that “thrived in Victorian parlours.” This collection includes such rousers as “Barbara Frietchie” and “The Charge of the Light Brigade” as well as lachrymose staples such as “My Mother’s Bible” and “The Lips that Touch Liquor Shall Never Touch Mine.”

The Collected Works of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century , which sold twenty-five thousand copies in its first month in the bookstores, is perhaps the largest and glossiest of these anthologies, produced with the respect that might characterize a book about cathedrals. For $12.50 the reader can race through twelve whole episodes of the now defunct comic strip without waiting, as contemporary enthusiasts were forced to do, for the next edition of their newspaper to reveal how Buck and his girl friend Wilma managed to escape once again from the menacing clutches of the Red Mongols. Buck and Wilma remain perennially young, in comic-strip fashion, but they reflect the passing years: Buck grows more muscular and Wilma distinctly bustier. If their rocket ships and atomic guns no longer seem so fanciful today, there is still mystery in “inertron,” the miraculous element that falls away from the earth, and an appealing innocence about such expletives as “Satan’s Beard!”

The most unusual of the current deluge of reprints is a book that only a few thousand people ever saw when it was originally written in 1886. Called Professional Criminals of America , it was written by Inspector Thomas Byrnes, who was then chief of the New York City Detective Bureau. Byrnes’s book (which its current publishers refer to among themselves as “the crook book”) contains pictures and biographical sketches of 204 of the leading criminals of the day. It was an era when crime in the United States was becoming a social institution, “a parody, as reflected in a crazy mirror, of the existing business system,” as Professor Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., says in his introduction to the reissue. Byrnes comments on the phenomenon himself. “Robbery is now classed as a profession,” he says, “and in the place of the awkward and hang-dog-looking thief we have today the intelligent and thoughtful rogue.”